TTIC @ The University of Chicago – Kalpesh Krishna

1461 Views, Posted on: June 20, 2017

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“Do you see that old building on the left? That’s the Chicago Post Office. That’s where Joker robbed the bank. Right in front of us you can see the Sears Tower, the second tallest building of the Western Hemisphere. That’s where Batman would spend his nights surveying Gotham!”, exclaimed the tour guide during the architecture boat cruise. I’m very fortunate to be spending summer 2017 at Chicago, USA. I’m working at TTIC, which is a computer science institute at The University of Chicago.

Getting There

In my winter vacations, I’d started working on a project at the CSE Department in IIT Bombay on language modelling. During the month of February 2017, my professor recommended me to apply to three university research programs including TTIC’s. TTIC’s selection program did not have any interview, but it included two recommendation letters and a personal statement. I got through two of the three programs and decided to go ahead with TTIC since it had a great research group and a flexible schedule.

I had a hard time with the J-1 visa, which delayed my internship by three weeks. Unfortunately, the HR head of TTIC was not working in the first half of April, which delayed my DS-2019 (a document necessary to apply for the visa). Luckily, my application was accepted immediately after the interview and I left for Chicago on 20th May. (I’ve blogged about the J-1 process!)

The day I arrived, I was lucky to be hosted by an IITB alumnus (Vishnu Nair), who showed me around UChicago and helped me get setup.

The University of Chicago

The University of Chicago is one of the best places in the world to study pure science, mathematics, arts and business. Our ex-RBI governor Raghuram Rajan is a professor at UChicago’s business school. Unlike most colleges, it does not have clear-cut engineering programs. It’s a really amazing campus, with ivy covered buildings, archaic architecture, huge gardens and the most stunning libraries I’ve ever seen. The college is extremely academics oriented, and you will rarely find the libraries even half-empty. Since the streets and surrounding neighbourhoods aren’t the safest areas, you won’t find much activity on the streets after it gets dark. Luckily, UChicago houses one of the largest private police force in the world, which patrols the campus throughout the day.

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Fig1. – Ivy Building.

 

TTIC & Work

TTIC is a graduate computer science institute in The University of Chicago. It primarily focuses on theoretical computer science, machine learning and bioinformatics research and has some excellent faculty. Since it’s a relatively small setup (roughly 1:1 faculty-student ratio), it’s an extremely informal environment. The research atmosphere at TTIC is amazing! Every week, there are tons of reading groups, distinguished lecture series and course lectures. I’ve been lucky enough to attend talks by Junyoung Chung, Erik Learned-Miller and I’m really looking forward to next week’s talk by the head of Google Translate, Mike Schuster! I’m hoping to lead one reading group session towards the end of the internship.

I’m working at the SLATTIC group, guided by three awesome professors. It’s a really diverse set of people and I love listening to their PhD stories and their discussions on AI and Computer Science. My project is on modern end-to-end Automatic Speech Recognition systems, the heart of today’s Siri and Cortana. I’m trying to build encoder architectures to speed up the training procedure for Connectionist Temporal Classification, one of the two state-of-the-art techniques for ASR systems. Unfortunately, ASR is a hard problem and training neural networks for speech recognition can often be challenging and tedious. Typical state-of-the-art architectures take 4-5 days to train and need expensive GPUs to make this possible. Luckily, TTIC has a really good GPU cluster and automation, which I’ve been trying to make the most of in the last couple of weeks. Along with the project, I’m trying to make some tools to increase research efficiency. A typical day of work here generally starts with reading an ASR paper, attending a talk / reading group, excellent discussions during lunch and a lot of programming (and debugging!). Towards the evening, I spend 1-2 quality hours ideating or reading in the Mansueto Library, my favourite place at UChicago.

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Fig2. – Research Group.

 

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Fig3. – Mansueto Library.

Accommodation, Transport and Food

I’ve been living at an apartment sublet with another TTIC intern from IIT Hyderabad. Housing is generally quite expensive in Chicago and it was a hard time searching for a reasonably priced housing for our duration of stay, and we finally settled for a 4 week sublease. My current house is 1 KM from TTIC and I generally go around on foot, walking about 4 KM daily due to the library visits. Chicago has a good cheap public transport system, and most of my longer trips are by CTA’s buses.

Food has been a real issue since I don’t know how to cook. I don’t really enjoy the non-vegetarian food here, but sadly it’s hard to find anything else. Nonetheless, Chicago is known for its deep-crust pizza, and it certainly lives up to its reputation!

Chicago & Tourism

Chicago is popularly called “The Windy City”. It’s got really unpredictable ever-changing weather, and I’ve had my share of severe thunderstorms, Mumbai-like heat and of course the crazy winds. While often defamed for its crime rate, most neighbourhoods are pretty safe. Located on Lake Michigan, Chicago is known for its bold architecture and skyline. So far I’ve visited Millennium Park, Shedd Aquarium, Navy Pier and the brilliant Architecture River Cruise. I also visited a really expensive theatre to watch Pirates of the Caribbean (big mistake). Hopefully I will hopefully cover all the major tourist attractions here by the end of my trip including a long cycling tour along Lake Michigan!

While a lot of things are much easier in USA, I get the feeling that people don’t like being dependent on others here. The streets are generally lonely on weekends and lots of residents tell me that the social life is really lacking here. Most shops generally close by 6pm, and most of the neighbourhoods are pretty deserted after sunset, making it too unsafe to loiter on the streets at midnight – something I’m so used to doing at IITB! Nevertheless, downtown Chicago is full of activity and tourists 24*7 with concerts and shows happening all year long.

sears_tower
Fig4. – Sears Tower.

 

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Fig5. – Museum Campus.

Conclusion

I’m close to halfway through my internship and it’s been a great experience so far. Work has been progressing slow up till now, but I’m hoping to speed up towards the second half. I’ve learnt a lot of academic and non-academic things, and I’m really looking forward to the next four weeks at Chicago!

 

 

 

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